The feast of the English Martyrs reminds us that we practice our faith today in this country, openly and freely, only because of their heroic witness. If it wasn’t for them the Church in this land would have been snuffed out. And yet how is it that so many Catholics today take their faith for granted? We live in a country where Catholics were marginalised, persecuted and martyred for their faith. And there are still anti-Catholic laws on the statute books of this country. Catholic members of the royal family are banned from succession, and the sovereign must be a member of the Church of England and must swear an oath to preserve the protestant religion and the protestant line of succession. Just a few years ago the bishops of the Church of England objected to a proposal to abolish the 1701 Act of Settlement which prevents Catholics from succeeding to the throne. In a multi-cultural 21st century Britain doesn’t this make you feel just a little bit like a second class citizen in your own country?
It wasn’t all that long ago that English Catholics were arrested and imprisoned simply for being Catholic; and priests were hanged-drawn-and-quartered for celebrating the Mass. Catholics who didn’t renounce their faith and accept the new protestant religion were hunted down, tortured and suffered horrific deaths, persecuted in their own country, and condemned as traitors.
Today, we stand at a sort of midpoint in time between the past and the future. We look back with a realization that the Catholic Faith has been passed down to us by men and women of outstanding faith; people like Saint John Fisher, Saint Thomas More, Saint Margaret Clitherow and a host of other English men, women and children who shed their blood for Christ and suffered in defence of the Church Christ himself established. Our religion has a history, and this is a history of humanity transformed by faith.
And yet we must also look to the future and recognize that those who follow us will have to look back upon our own time for a witness to the Catholic Faith. And what will they see? The kind of people we are as followers of Christ will have an influence not only on those with whom we live now, but also on those who haven’t yet been born.
We should never think that any one of us is insignificant in God’s plan for humanity. Like the English Martyrs we are all part of the history which God himself continues to shape. God wants each and every one of us to be part of that history as a living witness to the faith of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
On the 4th May 1535 four monks were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn – these were the first of many English Martyrs. Of this number 42 have been canonised and 242 beatified. But many who suffered on the scaffold, or in prison, or were subject to fines because they didn’t turn up for Sunday services in the reformed churches, these Catholics who suffered over a 150 year period simply can’t be reckoned. Today we remember them and we honour them for their constancy of faith and their tremendous courage in the face of unjust persecution. Without their heroic sacrifice we probably wouldn’t be here today celebrating this Mass openly and freely.